In the United States riding without a helmet is often viewed to be as dangerous and irresponsible as smoking. Needless to say, the stigma against it is significant. Helmets are seen as life-saving devices, the cycling version of seat belts. To ride without one is to take your life in to your own hands.
In many Euroepan cities, including Amsterdam and Paris where cycling is extremely prevalent, however, the percentage of people who wear helmets is negligable (and mostly limited to tourists). Yet, these cities are some of the safest for cyclists in the world. From experience, I can say that a person feels safer cycling without helmet in Amsterdam than cycling with a helment anywhere in the United States. What could account for this disparity?
Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, argues that the deterrence factor associated with helmet-wearing is so significant that it outweighs the safety benefits. This may seem like a strange or outlandish claim, but in many respects it makes sense. Wearing a helmet is a significant social faux-paz. Any child who grew up in California (and has experiece in cycling) can attest to the many embarrasing occasions when mom or dad forced them to put on a helmet before a bike ride. As we grow older this stigma, and the one which makes a person irresponsible (and sometimes a law-breaker) when they do not wear a helmet, can become so strong that it prevents a person from riding bikes altogether.
Professor de Jong argues that the fewer cyclists on the road, the more dangerous cycling is for those who do it. More cyclists= safer cycling. Look at the Amsterdam and the Paris examples. Both cities have a large number of daily cyclists and both cities have an entrenced cycling cuclture. This culutre, de Jong argues, is essential to biking safety, and if helmet laws are preventing this culture from floiurishing, then hemlet laws are in fact making cycling more dangerous.
In big cities that are trying to appeal to the toursit crowd, helmet laws can be especially contentious. Tourists want to take the easiest, most convenient route. Having to worry about safety equipment, like a helmet, could be a practical deterrent. In addition, helmets make a fairly safe activity seem inherently dangerous. “Recent experience suggests that if a city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and accept helmet-free riding. A two-year-old bike-sharing program in Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about 150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad roads and a temperate climate. On the other hand, helmet-lax Dublin — cold, cobbled and hilly — has more than 5,000 daily rides in its young bike-sharing scheme. Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground.”
Instead of worrying avout enforicing helemt laws, European ccycliung advocates recommend that U.S. cities focus on making safer lanes, safer intersecxtions and ultimately safer streets for cyclists.
This is obviously a contentious issue. Helmets have saved people’s lives. On that issue there is no dispute. But, is making helmets mandatory (and thereby deterring some riders) the best answer? Maybe. Maybe not.